Is God Vain?
By Gregory Koukl
I was confronted about a week and a half ago at a conference up at Mount Herman in Northern California with a very interesting question. It’s a question you might be confronted with as well. The question was simply, Isn’t God vain in wanting us to praise Him? And if vanity is bad for us, then it’s bad for God. This young man didn’t know how to respond. So he asked me about it. I’ll give you my response.
How can God ask for our praise? Isn’t that vain of Him? Isn’t that arrogant? Isn’t that self-centered? My response to the gentleman was this. First off, just because something is wrong for us, doesn’t mean it is wrong for God. We explored this concept, if you recall, when we explored mass loss of life in the Old Testament a couple of months ago. If it is wrong for us to kill, then how can God kill so many in the Old Testament? The answer is, because God is God. The Author of life has the right to take life. Or to put it colloquially, man can’t play God, but certainly God can play God. The reason is obvious. Different appropriate freedoms accrue to different persons by virtue of their office or character. Kids have bedtimes; parents don’t. Doctors can explore private parts of your body; strangers can’t. The President of the United States has authorities and powers and liberties we don’t possess. So it simply doesn’t follow that what is inappropriate for us (vanity in this case, desire for praise or adulation or worship) is also wrong for God. So the main presupposition I guess here is faulty.
But even so, it may be that the expectation of praise, here described as vanity, is inappropriate even for God, though not for the reason that we just mentioned. So let’s take a moment and look a little closer. Let’s have an exercise of clear thinking here as we dissect this problem. Vanity, according to Webster, is being excessively proud of oneself or one’s qualities or possessions. Praise on the other hand, is to commend the worth of. So both praise and vanity relate to worth. Praise is ascribing worth. Vanity is a distorted sense of worth. OK? Worship, the highest form of praise, might be called "worth ship" because you are ascribing worth to someone, in this case, God.
I think that a person who raises this kind of issue about vanity isn’t objecting because they think that praise per se is foolish. In other words, that praise in itself is irrational or unreasonable. When we praise someone, we acknowledge a certain kind of worth that person has. We saw he has produced something of worth or he manifests in his person or in his character something of worth. Praise per se is only foolish or irrational if there is nothing of worth in anyone in the whole world. And if no one had any worth, then ascribing worth of any kind would simply be error because nothing praiseworthy existed anyway. But clearly this can’t be true. Only an extreme cynic would suggest such a thing. If he does suggest that nothing in the whole world has any worth, then it strikes me that the burden is on him to prove that everything is worthless and not on me to prove that some things have value. It seems obvious. There are many things in the world of value. Many acts of value people perform. Many qualities of value that people possess.
So praise in itself seems to be rational. Of course, we all know this. That’s why we praise others in some measure. That’s why we are constantly seeking praise ourselves. We think it is deserved. It is reasonable. It makes sense. So praise is a rational concept. That’s the first thing.
Second, it’s not vanity to expect praise for praiseworthy acts. In other words, praise goes naturally with merit. Vanity is excessive pride, not appropriate pride in someone’s accomplishments. If one displays merit of some sort, in a deed, in a design, in a desire, well, then, praise commensurate with the particular merit seems to fit. So praise is appropriate where it fits the merit. We are making progress here, right?
Third, praise is even obligatory. What do I mean by that? Well, think of this: years ago there was a plane crash. It was winter. The airplane lay half submerged in a turbulent, icy river. You might have seen the video tape capturing this dramatic scene of rescuers throwing themselves in that frigid torrent to save the few who survived the impact of the crash, bobbing around amidst the ice flow there. Do you remember that? Let me ask you a question. What is our appropriate response to that? Is it morally sound for us to look at such a scene, such a dramatic display of goodness and selflessness and be completely unmoved? Is it rational for us to treat that act with the same kind of moral disinterest as somebody taking a short dip in a refreshing pond? I don’t think so. If we have no room in our heart for praise of an heroic act like this, people would call us cynical, right? And they’d be right. It is cynical not to acknowledge worth in an eminently worthy thing. In our silence, we are saying that something that appears worthy actually has no worth at all.
Now, there may be a problem with men’s expectation of praise. I think that there is. I’m not so sure that that problem applies to God as well…
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